Five lessons the NFL should take from the AAF's successful debut weekend

The AAF’s best-case scenario is to be to the NFL what the G League is to the NBA. The AAF can survive on its own while helping the NFL get better. This past weekend showed fans would be just fine with that.

The most impressive thing about the AAF’s debut was the majority of reaction to it seemed positive. The currency of 2019 is internet rage, yet the AAF was mostly lauded and Saturday night’s games even beat a very good NBA matchup in the television ratings.

The main takeaway is that people want more football. Another takeaway is that while the NFL isn’t exactly going to lose ground to the AAF, there are some things the big league should take a long look at, in regards to what people liked about the AAF. Like the AFL, USFL and XFL, the most enduring legacies of competing pro football leagues often end up being how they influence changes in the NFL.

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The NFL and AAF aren’t exactly competing. The AAF has said it wants to work as a partner with the NFL; some AAF games can be seen on the NFL Network, so there’s some synergy already. As such, maybe the NFL can easily embrace these five lessons learned from the AAF’s first weekend:

Officiating transparency is good for the game

The shameful way the NFL handled the infamous no-call in the New Orleans Saints-Los Angeles Rams NFC championship game should be a wake-up call. Their referee was sent out to talk to a pool reporter after the game and said he hadn’t even seen the play. A week-and-a-half passed before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had the first official league statement on it. The missed call was bad, and the league reaction was embarrassing. The entire fiasco has fed widespread criticism about officiating.

Compare that to the AAF having the decision-making process of its replay officials broadcast live. Not only was it entertaining, it gave everyone an idea why calls were made. This was an oddly fascinating minute of television:

The NFL might never go that far, but with people crushing its officiating it wouldn’t be the worst idea to give us more insight into their decision-making process. The AAF showed how that can be done.

Fans like big hits

I’m not sure how the NFL incorporates the bloodlust people had for some of the bigger hits we saw over the weekend. The play that drew the most attention among the four games was probably San Diego Fleet quarterback Mike Bercovici getting blasted by San Antonio Commanders linebacker Shaan Washington.

The NFL is in a tough spot, and always has been. We can’t criticize the league for not doing enough for player safety through the years, then also criticize the league for eliminating hits that endanger player safety. And the NFL had a great 2018 season in part because the quarterbacks stayed mostly healthy. It’s a good trade-off. But the AAF is a reminder that folks still like seeing violent collisions.

There are some talented players for the NFL to scout

We’re going to see plenty of the players from the AAF get a look from the NFL. Quarterbacks Garrett Gilbert (Orlando), Luis Perez (Birmingham) and John Wolford (Arizona) posted good numbers. Shaan Washington, the San Antonio pass rusher who crushed Mike Bercovici, got a shout out from former NFL general manager Scot McCloughan. Orlando linebacker Terence Garvin had two interceptions.

Some of the more notable names didn’t shine. Former Jets quarterback Christian Hackenberg struggled, though he brought some entertainment by dropping swear words on his live mic. Trent Richardson had just 58 yards on 23 carries, though he did score twice.

Nobody should or did expect NFL-level play from the AAF, but there were more than a handful of players who look like they could be on NFL rosters in the fall. The NFL will be better off if another league like the AAF can serve as a developmental ground.

Some of the new rules make sense

People seemed mixed on the AAF eliminating kickoffs, but that’s one rule difference the NFL will pay close attention to. The NFL has toyed with eliminating kickoffs for a few years as a way of helping player safety. The AAF game didn’t seem much different without them.

Something that was quite well received, which the NFL will have to note, was how the AAF sped up the game. The lack of TV timeouts was a huge hit. Using quick split-screen advertisements instead of full TV timeouts might not be feasible for the NFL, whose television partners pay enormous fees and have to make that money back off advertising. But it did lead to quicker games, about two-and-a-half hours. That was a good change.

More access to the game is a good thing

The NFL is fairly ridiculous with its paranoia. Many times the NFL’s mic’ed up segments during games, which aren’t shown live, are just players yelling excitedly as they see a big play. There’s absolutely no value in that.

The AAF seemed to have everyone wired for sound. And it was amazing. It would not ruin the NFL to let people see behind the curtain with its players and coaches. NFL teams believe everything they say on the sideline is a state secret. The intense (and unnecessary) paranoia in the game has stripped the NFL of all its personality. The NFL games are still great, but the NBA is infinitely more interesting when it comes to the personalities in the game. An easy way to turn that trend a little bit would be to take a page from the AAF and give us more live sound during games. Perhaps the best moment of the AAF’s first weekend came from Steve Spurrier being mic’ed up:

Whatever teams would give up in strategic secrecy, the game would benefit. The television product would be much better. Coaches would survive. And it would be nice for the NFL to think of its fans first more often. That could go for other things like not cracking down on fans posting highlights on social media, something the AAF seems quite comfortable with. The NFL is remarkably behind the times with some of its attitudes on things like gambling and social media, and perhaps the AAF can help the NFL see the light.

The AAF had a very interesting first weekend. The ratings were quite positive and the reaction was as good as the league could have possibly expected. The NFL would be smart to take a look into what the fans liked, and listen.

Orlando Apollos safety Will Hill III runs onto the field during player introductions before the AAF’s debut on Saturday. (AP)
Orlando Apollos safety Will Hill III runs onto the field during player introductions before the AAF’s debut on Saturday. (AP)

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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